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political rhetorical reflections while preparing for a lecture…

Posted by William Byrnes on July 30, 2013

Searching for some good examples of American populist rhetoric to amuse a Law and Economics class, I re-stumbled upon William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech.  For my non-U.S. students, the “Cross of Gold” speech is heralded as one of the best rhetorical speeches delivered in the U.S. Congress.  My memory of grade school, reading Bryan’s folksy style, quickly refreshed with his opening …

“I would be presumptuous, indeed, to present myself against the distinguished gentlemen to whom you have listened if this were but a measuring of ability; but this is not a contest among persons. The humblest citizen in all the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. “ …

And of course his crescendo against the gold standard:

“Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”[1]

Many years later, William Jennings Bryan made a recording of this famous speech: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/williamjenningsbryan1896dnc.htm

A week past, chatting with Professor Denis Kleinfeld as he was preparing for his course on International (Offshore) Financial Centers), he referred me author Jay Starkman’s book that includes numerous entertaining anecdotes about tax and U.S. history: The Sex of a Hippopotamus: A Unique History of Taxes and Accountancy. http://www.starkman.com/hippo/index.html (I’ve ordered a copy)

What happenstance to be reminded of Bryan’s Congressional speech in favor of the income tax.  Besides having rhetorical merit near that of the Cross of Gold speech, Bryan provides a brief summary of income tax levied right ‘round the world (well, at least Europe).  This opening certainly beats that of Cross of Gold:

“Mr. Chairman, if this were a mere contest in oratory, no one would be presumptuous enough to dispute the prize with the distinguished gentlemen from New York; but clad in the armor of a righteous cause I dare oppose myself to the shafts of his genius, believing that “pebbles of truth” will be more effective than the “javelin of error,” even when hurled by the giant of the Philistines.”

His income tax speech crescendo in favor of a 2% (aghast!) maximum rate lay prelude to the expatriation regimes of today:

“Of all the mean men I have ever known, I have never known one so mean that I would be willing to say of him that his patriotism was less than 2 per cent deep.”[2]

Now, for my Law & Econ class, I’m quite partial to the rhetoric of Huey P. Long, being that we share that great, sovereign, State of Louisana.  Thus, I went with a couple of his quotes instead.  For those of you who don’t know the folksy speeches of Huey P. Long, a good one-minuter about the (lack of) difference between Republicans and Democrats – view him here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=avGl7k4OGJY

While most political economic students will know his “Every Man a King” radio address (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/hueyplongking.htm), only students of political rhetoric will have been exposed to his 1928 “Evangeline” campaign speech:

“…It is here under this oak where Evangeline waited for her lover, Gabriel, who never came. This oak is an immortal spot, made so by Longfellow’s poem, but Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment.

Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come?

Where are the roads and the highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before?

Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled?

Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but it lasted only through one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations. Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here.”

[1] You may read the entire speech compliments of http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5354/

[2] You may read the entire speech compliments of http://www.starkman.com/hippo/history/bryan.shtml


One Response to “political rhetorical reflections while preparing for a lecture…”

  1. Thank you professor!


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